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Anti-gay bias found in Pentagon ‘Don’t Ask’ survey

Activists divided over whether gay troops should participate

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A recently issued Pentagon survey asking service members about their thoughts on repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is inspiring consternation among LGBT advocates who say the questions have an anti-gay bias.

The survey was issued last week and is intended to gather perspectives from 400,000 non-deployed active duty service members on lifting “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The results of the survey are aimed to help inform a Pentagon working group that’s developing a plan to implement repeal of the 1993 law banning gays, lesbians and bisexuals from serving openly in the U.S. military. The group’s work is due Dec. 1.

The survey was created and administered by the research firm Westat in conjunction with the Pentagon Working Group, and, according to Servicemembers United, came at a cost to taxpayers of $4.4 million.

A copy of the survey obtained by the Blade and other media outlets is 32 pages. The survey uses the term “homosexual” interchangeably with the term “gay or lesbian” in its questioning.

One question asks responders if they “currently serve with a male or female” service member that they believe to be gay or lesbian.

Other questions address “If Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is repealed, how, if at all, would the way your family feels about your military service be affected?” and “Have you shared a room, berth or field tent with a Service member you believed to be homosexual?”

Another question asks service members how they would respond if they were assigned to share bathroom facilities or an open bay shower with an openly gay or lesbian person. Possible responses include “take no action,” “use the shower at a different time than the Service member I thought to be gay or lesbian,” “discuss how we expect each other to behave and conduct ourselves” or “talk to a chaplain, mentor or leader about how to handle the situation.”

No question on the survey asks service members about their sexual orientation or asks them whether they think “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” should be repealed.

In a statement, Alex Nicholson, executive director for Servicemembers United, said imaging a survey with “such derogatory and insulting wording, assumptions, and insinuations” on any other minority group is impossible.

“Unfortunately, this expensive survey stokes the fires of homophobia by its very design and will only make the Pentagon’s responsibility to subdue homophobia as part of this inevitable policy change even harder,” he said. “The Defense Department just shot itself in the foot by releasing such a flawed survey to 400,000 servicemembers and it did so at an outrageous cost to taxpayers.”

Nicholson cited as among the flawed aspects of the survey the use of the term “homosexual” and a focus on potential negative aspects of repeal, with little attention to potential positive aspects.

He also noted what he called a “repeated and unusual suggestion” that a service member may need to talk to military comrades and leaders about appropriate behavior and conduct.

Michael Cole, a Human Rights Campaign spokesperson, also expressed concern about the questions, but said the survey is important for the Pentagon working group to complete its examination on implementing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.

“While surveying the troops on the issue like this is problematic from the start and the questions exhibit clear bias, the fact remains that this study exists,” Cole said. “We urge the [Defense] Department to analyze the results with an understanding of the inherent bias in the questions and use it as a tool to implement open service quickly and smoothly.”

According to Reuters, Geoff Morrell, a Pentagon spokesperson, addressed the notion that the survey had anti-gay bias at a press conference last week, saying he “absolutely, unequivocally” rejects the accusations as “nonsense.”

“We think it would be irresponsible to conduct a survey that didn’t address these kinds of [privacy-related] questions,” Morrell said.

Morrell reportedly added that more training, education or facility adjustments may be needed required to prepare the U.S. military if “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is repealed.

One LGBT advocate familiar with the working group, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Pentagon doesn’t intend to make the results of the survey public once they are compiled. Still, the advocate noted that the Defense Department expects they will be leaked or known through the Freedom of Information Act.

Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, said the survey is sending a “complicated mixed message” with regard to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

On one hand, Belkin said, the survey is “is part of an education process” in which the Defense Departmant is “just starting to talk with the troops and hear from the troops” about the impact of repeal. Still, Belkin noted that the Pentagon is asking questions about LGBT people that wouldn’t be asked about other minority groups.

“You would never ask a survey question [such as] what would it be like to share a tent with a Chinese soldier, or would you take orders from a Catholic officer, or how would your husband or wife feel if you lived on post next to a Jewish family?” Belkin said. “And the reason we don’t ask questions like that is because those questions, by their very nature, constitute the group you’re asking about as a second-class citizen.”

Belkin said he didn’t think male service members bunking with female troops would be an appropriate analogy for the survey questions because that isn’t as germane as serving with people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds.

“The troops are already living next to and serving with and showering with and sharing tents with and doing everything with gays,” he said. “This is not a change that is any different from civilian society. It would be a change if we were asking them to shower with and share tents with women.”

Belkin said that advocates shouldn’t be focusing on the survey, but on an upcoming “leadership moment” in which the president and defense leaders would have to certify that repeal should happen.

“The question is not, ‘Does the survey say 46 percent will share a tent or 42 percent will share a tent?’” Belkin said. “That’s not what this moment is about. This moment is about whether leadership steps up and certifies that it’s time for repeal and implements non-discrimination — that’s what we should be focusing on.”

SLDN to LGBT troops:
Don’t take this survey

Also sparking debate among advocates is whether LGBT service members would be at risk of being outed under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” if they participated in the survey.

Servicemembers Legal Defense Network issued a statement July 8 warning LGBT service members about a potential risk if they participate in a Pentagon survey over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Aubrey Sarvis, SLDN’s executive director, said his organization “cannot recommend” that LGBT service members “participate in any survey being administered by the Department of Defense, the Pentagon Working Group, or any third-party contractors.”

“While the surveys are apparently designed to protect the individual’s privacy, there is no guarantee of privacy and DOD has not agreed to provide immunity to service members whose privacy may be inadvertently violated or who inadvertently outs himself or herself,” he said.

The statement says SLDN asked the Pentagon working group for information about the survey, including the survey texts, possible certificates of confidentiality, and whether the Pentagon could guarantee immunity for people inadvertently outed by the surveys. According to SLDN, the Pentagon was unable to satisfy this request.

Sarvis advised LGBT service members who participate should do so in a way that doesn’t identify their sexual orientation.

In contrast to SLDN, Nicholson issued a statement encouraging LGBT service members to take part in the study.

“Servicemembers United encourages all gay and lesbian active duty troops who received the survey to take this important opportunity to provide their views,” Nicholson said.

Nicholson added his organization is “satisfied” sufficient safeguards are in place to “protect the confidentiality of any gay and lesbian servicemember who would like to fully and honestly participate in this survey.”

Cole said HRC likewise is encouraging LGBT service members to take part in the survey.

“It is critical that voices of lesbian and gay service members are included in this study and we feel that the privacy safeguards are sufficient to maintain anonymity,” he said.

Nicholson told the Blade that as part of its contract, Westat has to “strip out information about survey respondents” before the company delivers the information to the Defense Department and “destroy” any personally identifying information.

“They cannot contractually give DOD any personally identifying information about any of the survey respondents,” Nicholson said.

At a press briefing last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates also maintained that LGBT service members wouldn’t be in danger of discharge if they participated in the study.

“I strongly encourage gays and lesbians who are in the military to fill out these forms,” he said. “We’ve organized this in a way to protect their privacy and the confidentiality of their responses through a third party, and it’s important that we hear from them as well as everybody else.”

The LGBT advocate familiar with the Pentagon study, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said a member of the Defense Department working group found SLDN’s response “jaw-dropping.”

“He has complete faith that the agreement they have with their third-party vendor, which is administering the survey, the anonymous drop-box option, and the other pieces of the survey that are designed to protect the anonymity of respondents are pretty air-tight,” he said.

The advocate said he was told if gay or lesbian troops don’t respond, it would remove a significant number of service members from the sample who would respond favorably to repeal.

On the other side, the advocate said, the Marine Corps and religious groups are “really making a major effort” to get anti-repeal comments to the Pentagon working group.

“The responses that they’ve gotten thus far have been overwhelmingly anti-repeal, and the attempt by SLDN to keep gay service members from responding is not going to help,” he said.

Belkin said the Palm Center is deferring to SLDN on whether taking the survey would be safe for LGBT service members and he had no recommendation for service members. Still, he noted that the Palm Center has an assessment of the risks.

“On the one hand, we think the Pentagon has actually been pretty careful about dividing privacy protections, and so we think that the risk of participation is minimal, but at the same, we don’t think it’s zero,” Belkin said.

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National

Guatemalan LGBTQ activist granted asylum in US

Estuardo Cifuentes fled country in 2019

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Estuardo Cifuentes outside a port of entry in Brownsville, Texas, on March 3, 2021, shortly after he entered the U.S. (Photo courtesy of Estuardo Cifuentes)

The U.S. has granted asylum to a Guatemalan LGBTQ activist who fled his country in 2019.

Estuardo Cifuentes and his partner ran a digital marketing and advertising business in Guatemala City. 

He previously told the Washington Blade that gang members extorted from them. Cifuentes said they closed their business after they attacked them.

Cifuentes told the Blade that Guatemalan police officers attacked him in front of their home when he tried to kiss his partner. Cifuentes said the officers tried to kidnap him and one of them shot at him. He told the Blade that authorities placed him under surveillance after the incident and private cars drove past his home.

Cifuentes arrived in Matamoros, a Mexican border city that is across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, in June 2019. He asked for asylum in the U.S. based on the persecution he suffered in Guatemala because of his sexual orientation.

The Trump administration forced Cifuentes to pursue his asylum case from Mexico under its Migrant Protection Protocols program that became known as the “remain in Mexico” policy.

Cifuentes while in Matamoros ran Rainbow Bridge Asylum Seekers, a program for LGBTQ asylum seekers and migrants that the Resource Center Matamoros, a group that provides assistance to asylum seekers and migrants in the Mexican border city, helped create.

The Biden-Harris administration in January 2021 suspended enrollment in MPP. Cifuentes entered the U.S. on March 3, 2021.

“We are profoundly relieved and grateful that my husband and I have been officially recognized as asylees in the United States,” Cifuentes told the Blade on Monday in an email. “This result marks the end of a long and painful fight against the persecution that we faced in Guatemala because of our sexual orientation.”

Vice President Kamala Harris is among those who have said discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation are among the root causes of migration from Guatemala and other countries in Central America.

Cifuentes is now the client services manager for Lawyers for Good Government’s Project Corazón, a campaign that works “hard to reunite and defend the rights of families impacted by inhumane immigration policies.” He told the Blade he will continue to help LGBTQ asylum seekers and migrants.

“In this new chapter of our lives, we pledge to work hard to support others in similar situations and to contribute to the broader fight for the rights and acceptance of the LGBTQ+ migrant community,” said Cifuentes. “We are hopeful that our story will serve as a call to action to confront and end persecution based on gender identity and sexual orientation.”

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U.S. Supreme Court

US Supreme Court rules Idaho to enforce gender care ban

House Bill 71 signed in 2023

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U.S. Supreme Court (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

BY MIA MALDONADO | The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed Idaho to enforce House Bill 71, a law banning Idaho youth from receiving gender-affirming care medications and surgeries.

In an opinion issued Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court granted the state of Idaho’s request to stay the preliminary injunction, which blocked the law from taking effect. This means the preliminary injunction now only applies to the plaintiffs involved in Poe v. Labrador — a lawsuit brought on by the families of two transgender teens in Idaho who seek gender-affirming care. 

Monday’s Supreme Court decision enforces the gender-affirming care ban for all other trans youth in Idaho as the lawsuit remains ongoing in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Idaho Attorney General Raúl Labrador
Idaho Attorney General Raúl Labrador gives a speech at the Idaho GOP election night watch party at the Grove Hotel in Boise, Idaho, on Nov. 8, 2022. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Idaho, both of whom represent the plaintiffs, said in a press release Monday that the ruling “does not touch upon the constitutionality” of HB 71. The groups called Monday’s ruling an “awful result” for trans Idaho youth and their families.

“Today’s ruling allows the state to shut down the care that thousands of families rely on while sowing further confusion and disruption,” the organizations said in the press release. “Nonetheless, today’s result only leaves us all the more determined to defeat this law in the courts entirely, making Idaho a safer state to raise every family.”

Idaho Attorney General Raúl Labrador in a press release said the state has a duty to protect and support all children, and that he is proud of the state’s legal stance. 

“Those suffering from gender dysphoria deserve love, support and medical care rooted in biological reality,” Labrador said. “Denying the basic truth that boys and girls are biologically different hurts our kids. No one has the right to harm children, and I’m grateful that we, as the state, have the power — and duty — to protect them.”

Recap of Idaho’s HB 71, and what led to SCOTUS opinion

Monday’s Supreme Court decision traces back to when HB 71 was signed into law in April 2023.

The law makes it a felony punishable for up to 10 years for doctors to provide surgeries, puberty-blockers and hormones to trans people under the age of 18. However, gender-affirming surgeries are not and were not performed among Idaho adults or youth before the bill was signed into law, the Idaho Capital Sun previously reported

One month after it was signed into law, the families of two trans teens sued the state in a lawsuit alleging the bill violates the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.

In late December, just days before the law was set to take effect in the new year, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill blocked the law from taking effect under a preliminary injunction. In his decision, he said he found the families likely to succeed in their challenge.

The state of Idaho responded by appealing the district court’s preliminary injunction decision to the Ninth Circuit, to which the Ninth Circuit denied. The state of Idaho argued the court should at least enforce the ban for everyone except for the plaintiffs. 

After the Ninth Circuit’s denial, the Idaho Attorney General’s Office in February sent an emergency motion to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Idaho Press reported. Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision agrees with the state’s request to enforce its ban on trans health care for minors, except for the two plaintiffs.

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Mia Maldonado

Mia Maldonado joined the Idaho Capital Sun after working as a breaking news reporter at the Idaho Statesman covering stories related to crime, education, growth and politics. She previously interned at the Idaho Capital Sun through the Voces Internship of Idaho, an equity-driven program for young Latinos to work in Idaho news. Born and raised in Coeur d’Alene, Mia moved to the Treasure Valley for college where she graduated from the College of Idaho with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and international political economy.

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The preceding piece was previously published by the Idaho Capital Sun and is republished with permission.

The Idaho Capital Sun is the Gem State’s newest nonprofit news organization delivering accountability journalism on state politics, health care, tax policy, the environment and more.

We’re part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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Kansas

Kansas governor vetoes ban on health care for transgender youth

Republican lawmakers have vowed to override veto

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Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed two abortion bills and a measure criminalizing transgender health care for minors. House and Senate Republican leaders responded with promises to seek veto overrides when the full Legislature returned to Topeka on April 26. (Photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

BY TIM CARPENTER | Gov. Laura Kelly flexed a veto pen to reject bills Friday prohibiting gender identity health care for transgender youth, introducing a vague crime of coercing someone to have an abortion and implementing a broader survey of women seeking abortion that was certain to trigger veto override attempts in the Republican-led House and Senate.

The decisions by the Democratic governor to use her authority to reject these health and abortion rights bills didn’t come as a surprise given her previous opposition to lawmakers intervening in personal decisions that she believed ought to remain the domain of families and physicians.

Kelly said Senate Bill 233, which would ban gender-affirming care for trans minors in Kansas, was an unwarranted attack on a small number of Kansans under 18. She said the bill was based on a politically distorted belief the Legislature knew better than parents how to raise their children.

She said it was neither a conservative nor Kansas value to block medical professionals from performing surgery or prescribing puberty blockers for their patients. She said stripping doctors of their licenses for serving health interests of patients was wrong. Under the bill, offending physicians could be face lawsuits and their professional liability insurance couldn’t be relied on to defend themselves in court.

“To be clear, this legislation tramples parental rights,” Kelly said. “The last place that I would want to be as a politician is between a parent and a child who needed medical care of any kind. And, yet, that is exactly what this legislation does.”

Senate President Ty Masterson (R-Andover) and House Speaker Dan Hawkins (R-Wichita) responded to the governor by denouncing the vetoes and pledging to seek overrides when legislators returned to the Capitol on April 26. The trans bill was passed 27-13 in the Senate and 82-39 in the House, suggesting both chambers were in striking distance of a two-thirds majority necessary to thwart the governor.

“The governor has made it clear yet again that the radical left controls her veto pen,” Masterson said. “This devotion to extremism will not stand, and we look forward to overriding her vetoes when we return in two weeks.”

Cathryn Oakley, senior director of the Human Rights Campaign, said the ban on crucial, medically necessary health care for trans youth was discriminatory, designed to spread dangerous misinformation and timed to rile up anti-LGBTQ activists.

“Every credible medical organization — representing over 1.3 million doctors in the United States — calls for age-appropriate, gender-affirming care for transgender and nonbinary people,” Oakley said. “This is why majorities of Americans oppose criminalizing or banning gender-affirming care.”

Abortion coercion

Kelly also vetoed House Bill 2436 that would create the felony crime of engaging in physical, financial or documentary coercion to compel a girl or woman to end a pregnancy despite an expressed desire to carry the fetus to term. It was approved 27-11 in the Senate and 82-37 in the House, again potentially on the cusp of achieving a veto override.

The legislation would establish sentences of one year in jail and $5,000 fine for those guilty of abortion coercion. The fine could be elevated to $10,000 if the adult applying the pressure was the fetuses’ father and the pregnant female was under 18. If the coercion was accompanied by crimes of stalking, domestic battery, kidnapping or about 20 other offenses the prison sentence could be elevated to 25 years behind bars.

Kelly said no one should be forced to undergo a medical procedure against their will. She said threatening violence against another individual was already a crime in Kansas.

“Additionally, I am concerned with the vague language in this bill and its potential to intrude upon private, often difficult, conversations between a person and their family, friends and health care providers,” the governor said. “This overly broad language risks criminalizing Kansans who are being confided in by their loved ones or simply sharing their expertise as a health care provider.”

Hawkins, the House Republican leader, said coercion was wrong regardless of the circumstances and Kelly’s veto of the bill was a step too far to the left.

“It’s a sad day for Kansas when the governor’s uncompromising support for abortion won’t even allow her to advocate for trafficking and abuse victims who are coerced into the procedure,” Hawkins said.

Emily Wales, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes, said HB 2436 sought to equate abortion with crime, perpetuate false narratives and erode a fundamental constitutional right to bodily autonomy. The bill did nothing to protect Kansas from reproductive coercion, including forced pregnancy or tampering with birth control.

“Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes trusts patients and stands firmly against any legislation that seeks to undermine reproductive rights or limit access to essential health care services,” Wales said.

Danielle Underwood, spokeswoman for Kansas for Life, said “Coercion Kelly” demonstrated with this veto a lack of compassion for women pushed into an abortion.

The abortion survey

The House and Senate approved a bill requiring more than a dozen questions be added to surveys of women attempting to terminate a pregnancy in Kansas. Colorful debate in the House included consideration of public health benefits of requiring interviews of men about reasons they sought a vasectomy birth control procedure or why individuals turned to health professionals for treatment of erectile dysfunction.

House Bill 2749 adopted 81-39 in the House and 27-13 in the Senate would require the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to produce twice-a-year reports on responses to the expanded abortion survey. The state of Kansas cannot require women to answer questions on the survey.

Kelly said in her veto message the bill was “invasive and unnecessary” and legislators should have taken into account rejection in August 2022 of a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution that would have set the stage for legislation further limiting or ending access to abortion.

“There is no valid medical reason to force a woman to disclose to the Legislature if they have been a victim of abuse, rape or incest prior to obtaining an abortion,” Kelly said. “There is also no valid reason to force a woman to disclose to the Legislature why she is seeking an abortion. I refuse to sign legislation that goes against the will of the majority of Kansans who spoke loudly on Aug. 2, 2022. Kansans don’t want politicians involved in their private medical decisions.”

Wales, of Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes, said the bill would have compelled health care providers to “interrogate patients seeking abortion care” and to engage in violations of patient privacy while inflicting undue emotional distress.

Hawkins, the Republican House speaker, said the record numbers of Kansas abortions — the increase has been driven by bans or restrictions imposed in other states — was sufficient to warrant scrutiny of KDHE reporting on abortion. He also said the governor had no business suppressing reporting on abortion and criticized her for tapping into “irrational fears of offending the for-profit pro-abortion lobby.”

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Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.

The preceding story was previously published by the Kansas Reflector and is republished with permission.

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The Kansas Reflector is a nonprofit news operation providing in-depth reporting, diverse opinions and daily coverage of state government and politics. This public service is free to readers and other news outlets. We are part of States Newsroom: the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization, with reporting from every capital.

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